12/12/2006

Retired Fla. officers warm to cold cases

By John Frank, Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times

Howard Eugene Smith died lying facedown in the parking lot of the VFW Post 4337 he often visited. He was stabbed to death after leaving the night of Feb. 8 , 1989.

Debra Sue Owens' bullet-riddled body was dumped in the Withlacoochee State Forest. She was found near a clump of trees by hikers on Sept. 28, 2002.

Both murders remain unsolved. But even years later, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office wants to bring resolution to these cold cases.

Four retired law enforcement agents, with a combined 111 years of sworn service, began delving into the Smith and Owens cases last month as part of a volunteer Cold Case Unit at the Sheriff's Office.

It's a starting point for the volunteers, who were broken up into two teams and assigned cases to work on for two days a week. Smith and Owens are just two of the 13 unsolved murders in Citrus County.

Investigators have pored over the thick case files for years, but the trail went cold long ago in many instances. The oldest case dates back to 1973, when deputies found the skeletal remains of Susan Smith along Rock Crusher Road in Crystal River.

For these retired police officers and FBI agents, it's a pleasure to get back in the squad room.

"I have 27 years of active law enforcement," said William Schaffer Sr., a retired police officer from New York. "I figured I may be able to help. You just can't take away your retirement from the community you're in. There comes a point when you give back."

Same for Manny Perez, a retired FBI agent from the Tampa area.

"I'm probably the last person I thought would be coming back into some type of law enforcement," he said. "But when you spend that much time in law enforcement it's a pretty big part of your life.

"For me, the first day we walked back in the squad room, I thought, 'Boy, I feel like I'm back home,' " he said.

The four investigators said they are looking forward to dedicating themselves to a specific case, which full-time deputies can't do, said Detective Lee Alexander, the unit's supervisor.

"That's the exact purpose of why we formed this team," he said. "The detectives in the major crimes unit had this (daily) pressure. And you work on these cases when you have time. Well, with our daily caseload, that time didn't come often."

Using volunteers to revive these forgotten cases is a model that has worked across the country. The Hernando County Sheriff's Office employs a similar concept with volunteers, drawing from an equally rich base of retirees with valuable skills.

The unit hopes to break new leads in the cases by using new technologies, such as DNA evidence, and by capitalizing on the time factor, re-interviewing witnesses who may be more willing to talk now.

Alexander said the volunteers have already made progress in their first two weeks. "My personal opinion is that they've made some great headway in the cases they are dealing with," he said. "Almost to the point, in my opinion, of 'wow.' I don't know how else better to say it."

Still, solving cold cases is a long shot at best. They acknowledge this, but it doesn't deter them.

Rick Sigurdsen, a former Washington, D.C., police officer, is the only one of the four to break a cold case in the past. He remembers it well: A drug deal gone wrong, and years later, a witness came forward to rat out the shooter.

He said the feeling of solving a cold case motivates him in this new venture. "It's a high like you can't imagine," he said. "It's a very, very exciting thing to go through."

Copyright 2006 Times Publishing Company
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